People can sue health care practitioners if they feel they have been injured. A wide variety of causes of action and legal proceedings may be involved. However, successful medical malpractice lawsuits generally require proof of all of the following:
- The care provided was below the ordinary standard of care that would be provided by similar health care practitioners under similar circumstances.
- A professional relationship existed between the health care practitioner and the injured person.
- The person was harmed because of the deviation from the standard of care.
(See also Overview of Legal and Ethical Issues in Health Care.)
Concern about lawsuits sometimes puts pressure on doctors to act in ways that are not necessarily in the best interest of their patients. For example, to avoid even a small risk of a lawsuit, doctors may order tests or treatments that have more risks than benefits to their patient. Risks of unnecessary tests can include radiation exposure and the occasional false test result, which can lead to further unnecessary tests, some of which may have complications (such as injury or radiation exposure), or even a false diagnosis and unnecessary treatment. If the chance of finding a problem that requires treatment is extremely small, the risks of testing may outweigh the benefits.
Patients should ask their doctor to discuss the relative benefits and risks of any test as well as proposed treatment before action is taken. Most doctors understand that the best defense against malpractice lawsuits is providing excellent medical care and building close, trusting, collaborative relationships with their patients.